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Thinking Outside the Bachs

Spring officially arrives in March. So does Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday – on March 21st.  The 2 events nearly coincide, and sometimes it seems it was destined to be that way.

That’s not all. Earlier in the month, on March 8th, it was the birthday of one of Bach’s sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. This year, we celebrated the 300th anniversary of his birth (1714-1788). Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s godfather was composer Georg Philipp Telemann. Telemann’s birthday was on March 14th.  That was the same day on which we celebrated the birthday (actually, the baptismal day) of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the harpsichordist/composer for whom Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous “Goldberg” Variations are named.  On March 13th, I noticed it was the 175th anniversary of the birth of an English pianist/composer named Sebastian Bach Mills (1839-1898) and on March 17th  it was the birthday of singer/songwriter John Sebastian, whose father (also named John Sebastian) was a classical harmonica virtuoso. (I’m not sure if Bach has any connection with their names, but just the suggestion is worth mentioning.) That’s almost enough Bach celebrating these past couple of weeks to merit a separate “March Madness.”

Speaking of which, have you ever looked at the Bach family tree? It extends from the 16th through the 19th centuries. And in music reference books, it looks awfully close to those NCAA brackets – those grids of all the teams in the tournament that people closely follow during March. The Bach family tree doesn’t have the “pairings,” as it were, just the offspring – and only the musical offspring at that. It’s amazing to see how many musical Bachs came before and after Johann Sebastian Bach.  And there were so many more that weren’t musical.  It makes you think that in the Bach family, rather than March Madness (since many were born during the 11 other months) it was more like an ongoing march of mom and dadness! The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians includes 53 musical Bachs in one family tree, and as many as 78 with names added. For those who are used to keeping score with the annual NCAA March Madness grid, following the Bach musical family tree may be a bit anticlimactic. We already know who appears in the successive rounds – not exactly having advanced, but having moved on via their posterity. The “final four” or so Bachs in the family tree’s 19th Century group are not what you would call the musical champions and the runners-up. So who are the musical “champions” of the Bach family tree?  Johann Sebastian and his sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian.  They’re the ones whose music has withstood the test of time more than the others.  But it’s really no contest. The entire musical family tree is like the history of one team. Talk about a dynasty!  If anybody “wins” in the end, it’s music listeners – and for centuries now.  If you’re into office pools, you can safely bet that the music of the Bach family will be around for quite a while.

On a recent Classic Morning Prelude, we had the chance to hear selections from a new recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos featuring the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi 902176.77) There’s a reminder in the notes to the recording that an entire century went by without the concertos being performed.  They were discovered in the Royal Library in Berlin in 1849. The author of the notes, Peter Wollny of the Bach Archive in Leipzig, describes the 19th century discovery as the awakening “Sleeping-Beauty like, from a slumber of more than 100 years.”  These 6 concertos went on be among the most famous and best loved works of Classical Music.  Back to the language of March Madness, that’s quite a comeback!

The occasion of the Bach celebrations brings to mind the Bach abbreviations: J.S. (Johann Sebastian), W.F. (Wilhelm Friedemann), C.P.E. (Carl Philipp Emanuel) and J.C. (Johann Christian). Those new to Classical Music should know that those abbreviations get tossed around in speech and writing all the time. Add to these the catalog abbreviations you often see accompanying the titles of the compositions by these composers. There are the BWV numbers (Bach Werke Verzeichnis, which is the German way of saying the Bach Work Catelogue). Works by C.P.E. Bach often have a Wq. number, which refers to the catalog number of the Belgian bibliographer Alfred Wotquenne. There are other abbriviations connected with the catelogues too.  Since it’s only several Bach family members whose music is being performed and recorded in our time, it’s not that difficult to get used to the abbreviations. It may be akin to learning text messaging and online chat abbreviations. In fact, it might be fun to play with the abbreviations in an all-Bach chat – which this blog entry has been. Given all the Bach related happenings of the past couple of weeks, it’s difficult to do any thinking outside the Bachs.

Join me for Classic Mornings Monday through Friday from 9 to noon and for the Classic Morning Prelude just before that at 8:50 on FM 90.9 or online at will.illinois.edu.